The U.S. media is slowly developing a bark when it comes to the Bush administration’s unconscionable detention policies. The fact that the great majority of Guantánamo’s prisoners have never (and will never) be charged with any crime seems to be sinking in. Following Colin Powell’s Johnny-come-lately call for Guantánamo to be shut down “not tomorrow but this afternoon,” many major newspapers ran editorials denouncing the prison camp.
Still, the mainstream media falls prey to distractions and distortions when it comes to Guantánamo. A recent spate of articles have focused on those few Guantánamo detainees who do not want to be deported to states where they fear they will endure (more) torture and detention or because our government claims that various foreign governments refuse to accept them.
The concern by certain detainees that they will be tortured in their homelands is certainly legitimate. Some of the men at Guantánamo had left their home countries because of persecution and resettled elsewhere when they were picked up for bounties and sent to Guantánamo. They rightly fear going back to their homeland. But the vast majority of the detainees at Guantánamo are willing and able to go home (or at least willing to risk going home rather than stay at Guantánamo). Why isn’t the media talking about them? Once again the corporate media is being suckered by the Bush spin.
Recent coverage of the case of Libyan detainee Abdul al-Qassim, who has been cleared for release, gave the impression that the United States would move more decisively to release Guantánamo inmates if it weren’t for the reluctance of foreign governments and the prisoners themselves to cooperate. A June 15 article on al-Qassim in the Washington Post described how the prisoner feared reprisals from Col. Muammar Gaddafi upon returning to Libya, since the U.S. government had falsely accused him of being a member of a militant anti-Gaddafi organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
In many cases, “terrorist” affiliations were sloppily assigned by nationality. Like al-Qassim and all other Libyans in Guantánamo, my Libyan client, Abdul al-Ghizzawi, was also listed as a member of the LIFG. Coincidentally, my Algerian client was also said to be a member of the LIFG because the military wrongly classified him as a Libyan. Al-Ghizzawi has no objection to returning to Libya and fears no reprisals from Gaddafi because the accusations against him are absurd. He is very ill and is consumed by fears that he will die alone at Guantánamo. He wants nothing more than to be reunited with his family, either in Afghanistan or in Libya.
Having declared all of the men at Guantánamo to be the “worst of the worst,” the Bushies feign shock and dismay when countries are not chomping at the bit to offer asylum to those few men that cannot go home. The real culprit in delaying the release of these men and boys is the U.S. government, which is trying desperately to save face in the middle of this legal and diplomatic disaster. There are foreign governments willing to take refugees, but the United States refuses to admit making mistakes in classifying these men as “enemy combatants” and places burdensome conditions on countries that might accept them as refugees. Few self-respecting foreign governments will accept these absurd demands, which effectively extend U.S. detention policy into their own territories.
Saving face is also the chief concern of the United States in deciding when to release prisoners. About 80 men are currently cleared for release and hundreds more will follow. But releasing these innocent men all at once would effectively be a concession by Bush that the U.S. detention policies in the “war on terror” are broken. Instead, releases consist of a slow trickle of quietly departing prisoners, drawing minimal press attention – and minimal outrage. This trickle-out policy may have to change as the Supreme Court is signaling a willingness to take up the Guantánamo cases and as the military commissions system falls apart. Rumor has it that a shutdown could happen as early as July. (Coincidently, the airport at Guantánamo will be closed for two weeks in July for “repaving.”) We shall see.
The best outline for how prisoners should be released was formulated in “USA: Cruel and Inhuman,” Amnesty International’s recent report on Guantánamo. The report emphasized that Guantánamo’s prisoners must be released unless they are charged with a recognizable crime and tried in accordance with international standards of justice. Moreover, Amnesty says that the United States is in no legal or moral position to demand foreign governments meet burdensome conditions on the transfer of prisoners. The report’s most radical, and perhaps most sensible suggestion is that, to the extent that transfer to their homeland becomes impossible or undesirable, the United States offer the prisoner the option of U.S. asylum as a refuge. Don’t hold your breath.